Service in King Lear and The Winter’s Tale

servants_top001Master-servant relationships figure heavily in The Winter’s Tale and King Lear, with masters King Lear and Leontes, and servants Kent, Camillo and Paulina. This essay will compare how such relationships are portrayed and what true service means. In both plays, service takes on a spiritual and existential dimension, and this fundamentally problematizes the conventionally accepted dynamic of superiority and subordination in the master-servant relationship. Despite these parallels, the two plays conclude with a different outlook – while the redemptive power of service is clearly demonstrated in The Winter’s Tale, King Lear is ambiguous and Kent’s service is marked by a sense of futility.

In both plays, the master figure is plagued by blindness. Despite the worthiness of Cordelia and Hermione (King Lear 1.100; The Winter’s Tale 2.1.131), Lear and Leontes perceive them as unfilial and unfaithful. This flawed perception of reality is described as “mad” by Kent and Paulina (King Lear 1.136; The Winter’s Tale 2.3.70), and madness can thus be understood as a condition that blinds one to reality. However, the blindness of the master is not merely confined to the misunderstanding of visual or verbal cues, for it extends to a form of spiritual blindness, where true virtue, as symbolized in the persons of Cordelia and Hermione, is cast away. Hermione is portrayed as the paragon of purity for all womankind, for “every inch of woman in the world […] is false if she be” (The Winter’s Tale 2.1.135), while Cordelia’s moral goodness is evident in her consistency of word and action. Yet, their virtue is replaced with moral perversion, for Leontes sentences Hermione to death as a “criminal” (The Winter’s Tale 3.2.87) and Lear banishes Cordelia while accepting the moral corruption of her sisters (King Lear 1.119). Thus, in both plays, the master commits an act that signifies a fundamental rejection of moral truth.

Both plays are situated in pagan pre-Christian settings, and apart from the brief appearance of the oracle in Winter’s Tale, there is a noticeable absence of the divine. However, this void of formal religious figures is filled by the substitution of servants as moral and spiritual advisors to guide their spiritually blind masters. Leontes’ description of Camillo as “priest-like” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.235) is a recognition that servants take on such proxy religious roles. While it is unclear if Shakespeare intended this, it is interesting to note that the servants in The Winter’s Tale are identified by names with strong religious connotations. In particular, Camillo originates from the Latin camillus, which refers to a “youth employed in religious services” (“Camillo”), while Paulina is derived from Paulus, a biblical figure whose divine vision cured him of spiritual blindness (“Paulina”).

This seeming conflation of physical and religious service in Shakespeare is even more evident in the imagery of a servant as a “physician”, which is alluded to by Paulina, Camillo and Kent (The Winter’s Tale 2.3.56; The Winter’s Tale 1.2.293; King Lear 1.153). Camillo seeks to “cure” Leontes of a “diseased opinion” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.293), while Kent terms Lear’s blindness as a “foul disease” (King Lear 1.153). The servant Kent’s focus on the metaphorical sickness of the soul is juxtaposed to the master’s exclusive concern with the material, for Lear speaks only of the “diseases of the world” (King Lear 1.103). The analogy of the physician reinforces the mission of service as one that involves the diagnosis of moral ills and seeks to stave off spiritual decay. Service is therefore elevated beyond the management of a master’s affairs to a moral duty where servants wield the transformative power to influence their masters’ subjective perception of truth. They facilitate a pseudo “[cleansing]” that purges evil from the “bosom” of their masters (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.235), and the three servants’ entreaties to their masters to recognize the moral truth of Hermione and Cordelia can be seen as part of this process. The language of strong religious authority and the possibility of a servant’s redemptive power comes out most strongly in King Lear. Kent’s repetition of the portentous command that Lear “reverse thy doom” and “revoke thy doom” positions himself as a divine intercessor capable of delivering moral judgment, for he asserts that he “will” tell Lear that “thou dost evil” (King Lear 1.154-5).

The role of servants as moral advisors is crucial to the understanding of the master-servant relationship in Shakespeare. Conventional notions of hierarchy become problematized, for the servants are endowed with a discernment that eludes their masters, and actually seek to contest the master’s perception of truth. This tenuous relationship can be firstly observed through the motif of sight.  Both plays begin with Lear and Leontes asserting their version of reality as the authoritative truth, supported by the supremacy of their vision. Lear soundly rejects Kent’s contrarian perspective of Cordelia’s virtue and achieves this through the displacement of Kent’s vision and the centering of his own, for Lear tells Kent to be “out of [his] sight” (King Lear 1.147). Notably, Leontes recites telltale visual cues as proof of his reality: “is whispering nothing? / is leaning cheek to cheek? / is meeting noses? […]” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.282). The rhetorical nature of his questioning and the inquiry of Camillo in the negative, “Ha’ you not seen?” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.265), clearly indicates that Leontes operates on the assumption that his wife’s infidelity is the unquestionable truth.

However, this supremacy of the master’s vision is challenged by the servants, who suggest that the master’s sight is ultimately deficient and seek to provide an alternative, and accurate, perception of truth. Kent’s words of farewell are startlingly prescient, for he rightly perceives the hollowness of Goneril and Regan’s “large speeches” (King Lear 1.170), He also urges Lear to “see better” and asserts that he is capable of providing clearer vision (King Lear 1.148). Interestingly, Kent compares himself to an archery target, or the “the true blank of [Lear’s] eye” (King Lear 1.149), thus positioning himself as the unobscured center of Lear’s vision, such that Lear will turn to him for guidance. Meanwhile, Paulina seeks to counter Leontes’ litany of visual proof with her own. She attempts to persuade him of the truth of Hermione’s fidelity by instructing him to “behold” the likeness of his child – “eye, nose, lip / the trick of’s frown, his forehead […]” (The Winter’s Tale 2.3.100).

The challenge that a servant poses to the master becomes even more evident in the motif of language, where there is a competing articulation of truth. The servants are foremost characterized by plainness and candor – Paulina asserts herself as “no lest honest” (The Winter’s Tale 2.3.70) and Kent describes his speech as “unmannerly” (King Lear 1.136), which can be understood as a rejection of the adorned language that is primarily associated with the court. In contrast, the master figure is more closely associated with obfuscatory speech – Camillo urges Leontes to be “plainer with [him]” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.261), and this draws a subtle contrast between Camillo’s plainness and Leontes, who verges on the incomprehensible in scene 1.2, especially lines 185-205. The servants’ desire for plainness is thus an appeal for clarity, and for truth to be made plain, or self-evident, while the vision of the master is clouded, and his speech obscured. However, this contrast gives rise to a rivalry of narratives, which is made manifest when Leontes demands that Camillo accept his articulation of truth: “say it be, ‘tis true” (1.2.295). Camillo’s emphatic double-rejection of it (“no, no, my lord!”) is countered by Leontes’ negation of Camillo’s speech by pointing to its falsity. In fact, Leontes seeks to surpass Camillo by asserting the supremacy of his narrative three times – “it is – you lie, you lie! / I say thou liest” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.296-298).

In both plays, the servant’s verbal challenge of power is met by the anxiety of the master at his own weakness of authority. Leontes’ desire to silence Paulina and “stay her tongue” (The Winter’s Tale 2.3.107) is a frantic attempt to deny the truth, while Lear’s pleas to be heard (“hear me; […] hear me!”) bears a hint of desperation as he seeks to assert his narrative over the thunderous “clamor / from [Kent’s] throat” (King Lear 1.555). The impotence of the master in these instances suggests that for a master to be a leader in the fullest sense, he cannot simply stake his claim to authority in the material world. When faced with Kent’s challenge to his authority, Lear sought to defend his position by relying on his earthly “dominions” and “kingdom” (King Lear 1.106). However, language, or the articulation of truth, transcends the physical boundaries that demarcate one’s social status. Paulina’s tongue is hence “boundless” (King Lear 2.3.91) and Kent’s words “come between” Lear’s “sentence and […] power” (King Lear 1.159) – it is not just an interference with Lear’s sentence, or literal speech, but his ability to sentence and exercise power.

The ability of the servant’s moral authority to overpower the master’s earthly authority is of great significance because it points to the radical change in the dynamic of the master-servant relationship, where the servant’s duty is ultimately owed to a higher moral or spiritual authority. Thus, when Kent takes on the role of a moral advisor and exercises his moral authority in condemning Lear, Lear seeks to remind him of the bond of loyalty he owes to his earthly master – “on thy allegiance hear me” (King Lear 1.156). Lear’s insult of Kent as a “vassal” (King Lear 1.152) is significant because he is reinforcing the fact that Kent’s position as a servant is grounded in a feudalistic structure that gives Lear authority. Lear is therefore seeking to impress on Kent that he is duty-bound to Lear himself, and not a higher moral authority. Any departure from this dynamic would make him an allegiance-breaker, or “recreant” (King Lear 1.152). In contrast, Leontes has previously accepted and recognized Camillo’s role as a moral advisor, calling him “priest-like” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.235). However, when Camillo’s assertion of his moral authority comes into contradiction with Leontes, Leontes rejects this authority. He declares that Camillo is a “mindless slave” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.298) and seeks to revert to the conventional notion of a master-servant relationship between a feudal lord and a slave who blindly follows the master’s earthly authority.

The recognition of the servant’s duty to a higher power explains why service in both plays often entails outright disobedience and artifice. The rejection of Leontes and Lear’s morally wrong commands are necessary to safeguard them from further corruption. Camillo’s performance of service to Leontes is thus characterized by betrayal, for to avoid doing the evil ordered by Leontes, he “forsake[s] the court” (1.3.378). To move Leontes to genuine repentance, Paulina engages in the active concealment of truth from her master, for she declares that her queen is dead (The Winter’s Tale 3.2.199). Similarly, Kent obscures his identity in order to contravene Lear’s banishment (King Lear 4.1).

Apart from acting as a moral advisor, the servant figure in King Lear has an additional dimension of complexity because he also fulfills an existential function. In this play, the age-old question of identity, or who am I, is inextricably tied to the question of where am I. Much of the play takes place in open-aired terrain, and the boundlessness of space has a delocalizing effect on man by negating all possible markers of identity, compared to enclosures that delimit and disrupt space. Notably, the unraveling of Lear’s wits is most prominently observed between scenes 8 and 11, which take place under the “open night” (King Lear 11.1). Lear’s madness can thus be understood as a form of existential blindness, for his wandering mind results in an obliviousness to his surroundings, and thus exacerbates this delocalization of the self.

The servant in King Lear therefore aids his master in the search for localization, and indeed, Lear relies on Kent to localize him, and within the space of four scenes, Kent does so at least seven times. Kent locates Lear by asserting “here is the place” (King Lear 11.1), and he also identifies enclosures that Lear can “enter” (King Lear 11.22, King Lear 11.3), thereby assuaging the existential search for localization momentarily. Here, it is interesting to note that Kent’s name lends support to the existential role that he serves – apart from being the name of a location, it is derived from the word cantus, which means border land (“Kent”).

Finally, the redemptive power of service in both plays remains to be considered. In The Winter’s Tale, there is a clear redemption of the once spiritually blind Leontes. Paulina’s professed use of magic to turn a statue into a living person (The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.100) is a pseudo-religious approximation of the miraculous resurrection of Christ. She also presides over a ceremony that bears resemblance to a religious ritual, for she directs Perdita to “kneel / and pray for [her] mother’s blessing” (The Winter’s Tale 5.3.120). Paulina’s declaration that she will cloister herself up in “some withered bough” and “lament” till her passing (5.3.134) is a further indication that her moral service has been fulfilled through the spiritual redemption of Leontes, and she is thus able to abdicate her duty.

In contrast, the conclusion of service in King Lear is highly ambiguous. Interestingly, Lear seems to be an altered man, for he now recognizes his own blindness, confessing his poor vision (“mine eyes are not o’ the best”) which he had previously denied. Furthermore, he speaks with a plainness of language, for he tells Kent that he will “tell [him] straight” (King Lear 24.275). However, Kent’s revelation to Lear that he is the “very man” who has served Lear loyally is interrupted by Lear’s distraction with Cordelia (King Lear 24.283), and while Lear manages to identify Kent, this moment of recognition is fleeting (King Lear 24.278). In fact, Kent’s service to Lear seems to have been interrupted by Lear’s death. Death is a separation between Kent and his master, and Kent states that his “master calls” and he must soon depart to join him so that he can resume his service (King Lear 24.316). Thus, unlike The Winter’s Tale, there is at most a partial redemption in King Lear and Kent’s service to Lear is infused with a sense of unfulfillment and futility.

Ultimately, The Winter’s Tale and King Lear provide a nuanced picture of service that departs from the conventional understanding of the master-servant relationship. In the future, it would be meaningful to compare the master and servant pairs to the masterless in the plays, such as Edmund, Autolycus and possibly Edgar.


“Camillo”. Behind the Name. n.d. Web. 2 May 2016.

“Kent”. Behind the Name. n.d. Web. 2 May 2016.

“Paulina”. Behind the Name. n.d. Web. 2 May 2016.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Stanley Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.  Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.  Print.


Categories: Literature

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